Feminist writing takes many forms, and of course the critic has to be able to classify a memoir of love and longing and loss carefully. The very bases of poet Indu Mallah’s writing is an obituary, elegantly written so that the conventional rendering of distress is transformed into a poetic idiom. There is a self consciousness to it, and yet the analytic abilities of Ms Mallah is not bathetic, but rather presents itself as a type of documentation.
There is no attempt at embellishment, or fictionalization, but rather the terseness of description, which captures half a century of a mother-daughter relationship, gives us a significant understanding of tea plantation lives. The women must keep perfect house, they must cook, decorate, garden, and there is the endless round of colonial repasts. Within this space, they entertain people like themselves, and find joy in the successes of their children. The tragedy lies when death occurs.
Indu seems to suggest that holding on to memories does instill in one a sense of wrongs one may have done a child by close supervision. This is the only thing that haunts her other than her daughter’s absence. And of course, for a generation that grew up on Sylvia Plath, the poem ‘Daddy’ comes to the fore. Does this beautiful specimen of womanhood, tall, striking, good looking and intelligent miss her father when he died while she was still in college? Yes, that great loss affects Roshni, who soon after packs up her bags and leaves for Italy. Roshni is a gifted linguist and translator who loves music, films, travel and food and after her death by cancer, her mother writes,
Your brothers have come home, Baby,
I have made your favourite dishes,
Your room is ready,
Please come home.
The daffodils are dancing in the air.
Awaiting your return,
The magnolia mingles its fragrance with your memory,
And the kurinji has kept its date with destiny.
A sunbird sweeps skywards
In a symphony of blue—
Midnight blue on midday blue
Resonating the blue in your image.
A white dove floats by
On an ethereal cloud,
The tune of ‘Welcome Home’ which you recorded for me
Is wafted in the air.
Won’t you come home?
There is a shift in the sun..
A lilt of lilac light
Pervades the house
—Welcome home, Roshi.
The reference to the daffodil in the poem is to its rather miraculous appearance in her garden, after a differently abled young man visits her, and cleans and weeds the pots, and fills the atmosphere with his charm and friendliness and disappears. The kurinji too provides us a map of time, with its fading and proliferating simultaneously.
In the deep sorrow that pervades Indu’s life after her husband dies, she tries to find comfort in her duties and her friendships. Food, travel, puja (and later, dhyana and spiritual discourses) are the second map on which she travels. Life touches her lightly, though she remains single, and she is already moving towards detachment, while enjoying the company of her children and grandchild. Roshni is away for many decades in Italy, living a very full life as a professional linguist and translator. There are phone calls, letters, (all preserved by both neatly) postcards, packages of gifts posted and the intermittent visits home. School, college, early work opportunities are described in mutual pleasure.
When Indu visits Roshni, in Perugia in Umbria, her daughter introduces her to a interesting team of women who are fellow translators, and with whom she lives and travels. These women become Indu’s support group when Roshni dies of cancer just short of 50. Her beauty, simplicity and straightforwardness is what comes through in the book. It is not just love between mother and child, it is the totality of emotions that encompass their being. They enjoy the typical food of the wandering elite, whether in Italy or not: chocolates, pizza, pasta, fresh bread, cheese and fruit. They travel together over Italy and the record of that travel appears particularly interestingly as vignettes of memory and as essays.
A lot of poetry informs the book, and some of it is quite lovely. Indu’s old-fashioned simplicity and rigour sometimes presents itself as self-flagellation when she thinks whether she over disciplined her children. Of course not, whatever they may say, children grow up under the gaze of their parents, and go on to live full, enjoyable lives, helping others, and accepting love and friendship in turn. The cancer gene turns up in families, and Roshni’s recession phase is brief.
Roshni embodied the idea that marriage and children were not necessary for happiness or fulfillment. She was a career woman to the last, and there is often something terse about her communications, because she was always in a hurry to be back at work. The fact that the two women had such a bond, and the dignity with which they protected one another through this overarching-love is what this ‘monument’ through words is about.
There are three striations to this slim book, published on excellent paper, a clear bold black print, easy on the eyes and printed with lots of space. First comes a brief family history, showing how bonded they are to their parents, grand-parents and siblings, across generations. The second is about household responsibilities of the upper class housewife, where perfectionism, daily routines and puja predominate. Indu loves words, just as much as she loves birds, water, trees, flowers, sky and the cordoned off domestic space of the upper class housewife. As a professional writer she travels, enjoys books and seminars, and almost in précis style communicates the essence of these to her daughter who cannot come home often, as she lives abroad, and works for a government organization in Perugia. This town is pretty, but gets snowed under in winter. The photos of Roshni are only occasionally clear, but most of them are too tiny to make out the persons. The third axis on which the book finally rests is the cry of pain, the wondering of loss, or the excerpts from the huge literature that she reads to come to terms with the fact that the pain of loss never leaves her.
Bourgeois narratives are always interesting because we see picture perfect lives, life as we see on film, but the reality is these women are often battling boredom, loneliness, and an inability to accept a world different from their own. The Buddha’s request to find a house where there is no death is the trail of words in which Indu must make recompense as the Ooty fog descends. Fathers and uncles deal with the tea station workers, it rains a lot, and out of that melancholy appears the love for reading, cooking, embroidery, crochet, painting, visits to the library and of course endless rounds of cake and tea at home or in cafes. In Indu’s lucid prose, love is knit again, nightmares kept at bay, and a guru sought. The last part of the book is a repudiation of karma, and prarabdh, and an intellectual reconnaissance with Buddhism. Indu deals with loss like any mother would, with nightmares and texts to explain to her and us that words by themselves cannot explain the wrenching of the mind and body when a loved one dies, and yet… words comfort.
Susan Visvanathan is the author of Adi Shankara and Other Stories.